Born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910, the legendary blues singer better-known as Howlin' Wolf is still considered one of the greatest musicians of that genre. With an intimidating growl voice and a foreboding physical presence, Burnett is still considered one of the greatest purveyors of electric blues.
At six feet, six inches and close to 300 pounds, he possessed an intimidating presence and one of the most memorable voices of all his Chicago contemporaries. He ranks right up there with Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters, all of whom he recorded with during his tenure with Chicago's storied Chess Records label. "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me,'" legendary producer Sam Phillips once remarked. "'This is where the soul of man never dies.'"
No wonder, then, that in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 51 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." A number of songs written or popularized by Burnett -- such as "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Back Door Man," "Killing Floor," and "Spoonful" -- have become blues and blues-rock standards.
Born in White Station, Mississippi, he was originally named after Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. However, early on, his imposing physical stance inspired an array of intriguing nicknames, among them, "Big Foot Chester" and "Bull Cow." But the nickname that would stick throughout the course of his career was given to him by his grandfather as a means of keeping him in check. If he misbehaved, he was told, he'd fall prey to a "howling wolf." Still, his religious mother threw him out of the house while he was still a child for refusing to work around the farm. He then moved in with his uncle, but when life became unbearable due to his uncle's abuse, he traipsed all the way to Chicago to live with his father. At the height of his fame, he returned home to pay his mother a visit, but she rebuffed his offer of money because she claimed it was the product of playing the "devil's music."
In truth, Wolf was mentored by Delta blues man Charley Patton, who also taught him guitar. Other early inspirations included such icons as the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson, and, surprisingly, country singer Jimmie Rodgers, Wolf's childhood idol. "I couldn't do no yodelin'," he once told a reporter, lamenting the fact he couldn't imitate Rodgers' trademark style. "So I turned to howlin'. And it's done me just fine."
Wolf performed throughout the South during the 1930s, both as a solo performer and in the company of other blues musicians like Floyd Jones, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Son House, and Willie Johnson. After a stint in the Army, he resumed his performing career and formed a band with guitarists Willie Johnson and Matt "Guitar" Murphy, harmonica player Junior Parker, a pianist who was known only as "Destruction," and drummer Willie Steele. Sam Phillips, the man responsible for jump-starting the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, signed him to a fledgling Memphis record label in 1951.
Wolf cut several tracks at Phillips' Sun Studio, and after word got around, he was signed to Chess Records, where he scored his earliest hits, among them "How Many More Years"; its flip side, "Moanin' at Midnight"; "Smokestack Lightning"; and "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)." In 1959, Wolf also released his first album, Moanin' in the Moonlight, a compilation of previously released singles. Eventually he moved to Chicago, where he formed the first of several all-star ensembles that would back him throughout his career.
Wolf's landmark LP Howlin' Wolf was released in 1962 and featured contributions from Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers, and Sam Lay, among others. It included several landmark songs that would soon become standards, like "Wang Dang Doodle," "Goin' Down Slow," "Spoonful," and "Little Red Rooster." Those recordings began to resonate with several up-and-coming musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, many of whom covered his songs and subsequently introduced them to their young white audiences. In 1964, he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour and created an instant sensation. The following year, the Rolling Stones, then among his most ardent fans, arranged for him to appear with them on the popular television show Shindig at their insistence. They were scheduled to appear on the same program and had covered "Little Red Rooster" on an early album.
The adulation Wolf inspired continued unabated into the early '70s, so much so, in fact, that when he and his longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin traveled to Britain to record the Howlin' Wolf London Sessions LP, a host of musicians was waiting to participate. The result was one of the most notable superstar albums of all time, which included luminaries like Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts.
Unlike many other blues musicians, Wolf managed to maintain his finances and never succumbed to the temptations of alcohol, gambling, material excesses, or other vices. After growing out of an impoverished childhood to begin a musical career, Howlin' Wolf was always financially successful. He even returned to school, first to earn a GED and later to study accounting and other business courses in order to augment his business career. He was so financially successful, in fact, that he was not only able to provide his backing band a competitive salary but also provide them with health insurance, which was almost unheard-of at the time. That allowed him to hire his pick of the best available musicians and ensure that his band remained one of the best around.
Wolf's health began to decline in the late 1960s through 1970s as he suffered a series of heart attacks. In 1970, his kidneys were severely damaged in an automobile accident, and he eventually succumbed to the complications of kidney disease on January 10, 1976.
Still, Howlin' Wolf's music lives on, both in his own seminal recordings and in the vast number of popular covers recorded later on. Here are a few of the Howlin' Wolf songs that remain indelible classics of all time.
In the early to mid-1960s, "Smokestack Lightning" became a popular staple for a host of British bands, particularly the Yardbirds, who made it a regular part of their repertoire. Others who covered it included Manfred Mann, the Animals, and the Who, as well as several American groups, like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Electric Prunes. Among the others who recorded it are Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Lucky Peterson, John Lee Hooker, John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, Widespread Panic, moe., Gov't Mule, George Thorogood, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
"Back Door Man"
The Doors famously recorded "Back Door Man" for their eponymous debut album, leading Doors' drummer John Densmore to describe the song as "deeply sexual and got everyone moving." It also appears on the Doors' live albumAbsolutely Live
In addition, the song has been recorded by the song's original writer, Willie Dixon, and such disparate artists and bands as Chicken Shack, Blues Project, Shadows of Knight, Bob Weir, Frank Marino, Eric Burden, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Soul Asylum when they were fronted by Iggy Pop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jimi Hendrix performed "Killing Floor" early in his career, including vocal performances with Curtis Knight and the Squires in 1965-66. He also performed the song when he sat in with Cream after arriving in England in 1966 and it was included in the Jimi Hendrix Experience's early set lists, most notably at the Monterey International Pop Festival.
Led Zeppelin also performed "Killing Floor" live in 1968 and 1969, and it became the basis for their "The Lemon Song." Other notable covers include those by the Electric Flag on their 1968 album, A Long Time Comin', Albert King on his Years Gone By album and Hubert Sumlin when he performed it with Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray at the 2004, 2007, and 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival.
Cream recorded "Spoonful" for their 1966 U.K. debut album,Fresh Cream
, although for the American release ofFresh Cream
, "I Feel Free" was substituted for "Spoonful." The song was released in the U.S. later in 1967 as a two-sided single and subsequently recorded at a Winterland concert and included on their 1968 albumWheels of Fire
, a version that lasts nearly 17 minutes. "Spoonful" has also been recorded by artists such as Etta James, the Blues Project, Canned Heat, Shadows of Knight, George Thorogood, Ten Years After, and the man who wrote it, Willie Dixon. The Grateful Dead also included the song in its live repertoire from 1981 through 1994.
"I Ain't Superstitious"
Jeff Beck recorded "I Ain't Superstitious" for the 1968 debut albumTruth
by the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart on vocals. Other notables who recorded the song include the Grateful Dead, the Yardbirds, and again, the song's author, Willie Dixon.
"Little Red Rooster"
Sam Cooke was the first to have a hit with the song, with his version reaching number seven on the
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R&B chart. Following Cooke's success, the Rolling Stones' version of "Little Red Rooster" in 1964 was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, the same studios where Howlin' Wolf created his version. The song reached number one in the U.K. singles chart on December 5, 1964, and it remains to this day the only time a blues song has ever topped the British pop charts. "Little Red Rooster" has also been covered by many other artists including Big Mama Thornton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Luther Allison, James Blood Ulmer, the Persuasions, Grateful Dead, the Doors, Otis Rush, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and, again the man who wrote the song, Willie Dixon.